Second group of O3b satellites launch on a Europeanized Soyuz. Credit: Arianespace

KOUROU, French Guiana — A Europeanized version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket on June 25 placed the first four of O3b Networks’ Ka-band broadband satellites into an equatorial orbit, the first of three Soyuz flights that startup O3b has booked for a constellation that ultimately could count up to 120 satellites.

The launch was the fifth flight since 2011 for the Soyuz from Europe’s Guiana Space Center here on the northeast coast of South America.

The four O3b satellites, each weighing 700 kilograms, will operate over the equator at an altitude of 8,063 kilometers, which O3b officials say is close enough to the Earth’s surface to eliminate the signal latency associated with satellites in higher orbit.

O3b Chief Executive Steve Collar confirmed that all four satellites had sent signals to O3b’s ground gateway stations and were healthy in orbit. The spacecraft are expected to use their on-board thrusters to reach their final orbit in about a week.

O3b satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space said it would take about six weeks of orbit maneuvers and instrument testing before the satellites are turned over to O3b for operations.

Based in Britain’s Channel Islands and backed by, among others, satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, O3b has signed contracts with nearly 20 telecommunications operators and Internet services providers, mostly in the developing world.

The constellation’s orbit is designed to provide high-bandwidth Internet links to land masses located between 45 degrees north and 45 degrees south of the equator, which means mainly the developing world.

This was the original plan of O3b founder Greg Wyler and his partner, O3b Chairman John Dick, who envisioned providing fast Internet to the “other 3 billion” inhabitants of the Earth who currently are underserved by broadband links.

Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy is under contract to build the first 12 O3b satellites. The remaining eight spacecraft are scheduled to launch from here aboard Soyuz rockets in September of this year and in late 2014.

Collar, formerly of SES, said the constellation can function with just six satellites. In a few markets on the equator, such as the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, service will debut even before the second set of four satellites is up and operating.

As the constellation is populated with more spacecraft, service improves and the job of the mechanically steered ground antennas, which track the satellites and hand off the signals, becomes easier.

O3b and SES officials have said that the company has regulatory rights to sufficient spectrum to put as many as 120 satellites in the same unusual orbit. O3b is making use of radio spectrum originally won, following a long battle, by a U.S. company called Teledesic, which had envisioned more than 800 satellites to provide broadband links worldwide. Teledesic ceased operations before launching its satellites.

O3b investors want to assess the company’s early performance with 12 satellites, and in particular how the ground antennas function, before committing to more. Collar said the expected system performance increase from moving to at least 20 spacecraft makes a compelling case for doing so as soon as possible.

O3b has raised $1.3 billion to build out the initial constellation and associated ground segment. The company has yet to finance the launch and insurance of the third batch of spacecraft, but Collar said that once the first eight spacecraft are in orbit this should not be a problem.

The company’s backlog is around $750 million.

While it started as a means to provide bandwidth to developing nations, O3b has ambitions far beyond bridging the digital divide. Promising markets include oil and gas exploration platforms, cruise liners, cellular backhaul and military services.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.